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Sites Reservoir Project

By: Jim Watson

The Sites Reservoir Project is rapidly moving beyond the concept stage to becoming a reality, because of the leadership in Sacramento Valley.  In early 2001, four water agencies signed on to work with state and federal agencies to advance this project. In 2010, with participation from the counties, they formed the Sites Project Authority (Authority).  By the end of 2015, sixteen public agencies – all within the Sacramento Valley – had signed on and were funding the studies needed to advance the project.  Today, the Sites Reservoir Project has thirty-one participants signed on with three additional agencies each in the evaluation process.  And, we continue to receive additional inquiries of interest to participate.  These agencies provide water to agriculture and cities within the Sacramento Valley, the San Joaquin Valley, the Bay Area, and Southern California. Yet, the Authority is still governed by thirteen Sacramento Valley public agencies, whose service areas include the Sacramento River, the Feather River, the American River corridors. The significant level of interest is due to the solid fundamentals of the project as well as to the Authority’s goal to forge strong and durable partnerships; needed to make this project successful.

Voter-approved Proposition 1, will do more than distribute $2,500,000,000 to build water storage projects. This is not a grant. It is an investment of taxpayer dollars that must produce a return on the public’s investment that will be measured in terms of improvements to the environment and water quality – primarily for fish and birds.  The California Water Commission, who has been given the task to decide, by June 2018, what projects should receive funding and how many dollars to invest in each, must find that the project will contribute to the long-term ecological health of the Delta.

Similarly, in December 2016, congress authorized $335,000,000 to the Secretary of Interior to fund water storage projects. It also allows the Secretary to participate in up to 25% of the construction cost of locally-sponsored projects and to potentially acquire water for environmental purposes; which is dependent upon congress appropriating any funds.

To help the state achieve its Proposition 1 objectives, the Authority is proposing to provide the state with a new tool to more effectively manage water for the environment.  Due to the project’s size and location north of the Delta, Sites Reservoir can convert the state’s investment in their share of the construction costs into an annual volume of water the resource agencies could then use to adaptively manage to achieve measurable improvements for both fish and birds. In contrast, today’s process to provide any additional water for environmental purposes, comes from either voluntarily actions, which tend to be limited in quantity and location, or involuntary actions, which are contentious, time-consuming, and result in reductions in agricultural production that creates a rippling effect on rural communities and their way of life.  The Sites Reservoir Project’s operations, while not fully defined, will capture storm-generated runoff (i.e. when it is not highly valued), to then release it in the summer and fall when it is extremely valuable to protect and restore the environment and to improve water supply reliability for agriculture and cities.

By August 14, 2017 the Authority plans submit their proposal to the Water Commission. It will include details outlining how this new water management tool could be used and the estimated benefits to the State.  The Authority is prepared to offer the State the first right to invest in up to the 50% maximum as allowed in Proposition 1. Should the State elect to invest at a lesser level, there is sufficient commitment by the participating agencies to continue to advance the project.

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